Jiuzhaigou Valley, a dream shattered by earthquake

A week ago, a magnitude 7.0 earthquake erupted in Sichuan, where the scenic Jiuzhaigou Natural Reserve is located. 25 people vanished in the earthquake and more than 500 people were injured.

Other than the tragic loss of life, the earthquake also caused widespread damage to the landscape, which used to be famous for its luxuriant forests, colorful lakes, and beautiful waterfalls.

Here are some photos of Jiuzhaigou before the earthquake. jiuzhaigou photos

Here are some before and after shots.  http://news.ifeng.com/a/20170814/51629684_0.shtml#p=1

When I was in China in August, I had planned to visit Jiuzhaigou with my family and parents. I’d been wanting to visit it since I was a child, fascinated by the documentaries and books about it. But in the end, we decided to go to Guilin in Guangxi province instead as my mother, still recovering from her recent hospitalization, didn’t want to travel far. While I was appreciating the mountains and rivers in Guilin and Yangshuo, I somehow was also thinking about Jiuzhaigou, wishing I could visit there as well.

Now, as I’m mourning the tragedy in Jiuzhaigou, I cannot help but imagine what it would be like if we did visit Jiuzhaigou, and if we happened to visit while the earthquake struck……

Now, Jiuzhaigou is gone, and it can take a long long time before it’ll recover if it ever recovers. Nature is vulnerable, so is life.

(Featured image: Longji Terraces, 龙脊梯田,Guangxi Province.)

 

Guangzhou, a city where people walk fast

I’ve just returned from a month-long trip to China. It was hot and humid (humidity > 90% ) in Guangzhou, where my parents live and where I went for college, and many afternoons, a thunderstorm erupted and swept the city. Every time a lightning bolt struck, my two kids would cheer as they’d rarely experienced thunderstorms.

Air quality in Guangzhou in general is much better than that in Beijing, in part because it’s near the sea and has more rain. Here you seldom see people wear face masks, and during my stay, the sky was blue most of the time. Before the trip, I had been a bit worried about my son’s asthma and had brought a lot of medicine just in case. But he was totally fine throughout our stay, and didn’t complain about his breathing even once.

I noticed this time that people walk really fast in Guangzhou. All over the world, pedestrians are moving faster than before, but it seems to me that people in Guangzhou are even in a greater hurry. According to one study,  Guangzhou is ranked number 4 (Singapore is number 1 while New York number 8) by the speeds at which people walk.

“You have to be ready to catch every possible opportunity,” one of my friends, a Guangzhou resident, replied when I mentioned that people walk fast in Guangzhou. “There’s just too much competition,” he then added. Later, as we were waiting for a ride, he was on the phone constantly, talking or texting, only raising his eyes periodically to see if our ride had arrived.

For the locals, it’s hard not to feel the heat of competition. When I went to college in Guangzhou, the city had about 5 million people. Now, twenty years later, the number has increased to over 14 million, not to mention a huge influx of migrants living and working in Guangzhou, one of the richest cities in China.

Among eight million new graduates in China each year, Guangzhou is high up in the list of where they want to work.

No wonder real estate here is in such high demand. In Tianhe Bei district, where my parents live, you see realtor offices everywhere, sometimes, three or four of them right next to each other. (Pet-related businesses are abundant, too.) If you stop to look at the advertising on the windows, a smiling agent would come out from the office to chat with you. A 1000-square-foot apartment in this area can easily sell for one million US dollars.

But with the average salary being just slightly over one thousand US dollars a month in Guangzhou, you wonder how people can afford to buy real estate here. 

Even if you work multiple jobs, and even if you quicken your pace to a run…

(Featured photo: my son dabbing at Hua Cheng (City Flower) Plaza in Guangzhou.)

More and more Chinese Teens are coming to the US to study

Not long ago, I wrote a piece about the murder of a Chinese student in the UK and parachute kids and discussed the phenomenon of young Chinese students studying overseas. In the US, 1/3 of international students are now from China.

The trend of Chinese students coming to the US to study, despite the Trump administration’s new directives on immigration enforcement and international travel, will continue, and a variety of businesses, from American colleges and private K-12 schools, middleman agencies, tutoring and test preparation services, to local restaurants and luxury goods companies, will continue benefiting from this trend.

There’re other gainers, too.

I recently came across an American family, and the mother told me they accommodated three high schoolers from China in their house. She complained that one of them spent most of his time playing video games and he ignored her advice and supervision. “I called his mother in China, but she told me to let him be,” she told me.

I also know someone who rented out his house last summer through Airbnb to a Chinese family whose son was attending summer camps to improve his English.

Just yesterday, I saw an ad on craigslist, posted by an agency’s housing coordinator, trying to find a Chinese American family for one of their clients, a 15-year-old high school student from China. Requirements included: a furnished room, the internet, food and transportation to and fro school, and airport drop-offs and pickups. The offered payment was $1200 a month.

For some young Chinese students, this is a good opportunity to break free from China’s education system where creativity and imagination are secondary to learning rigid academic curriculum and abiding by authority.

But for some other students from China, leaving home and studying overseas by themselves at such a young age, sometimes against their will because their parents want them to succeed, can lead to bitterness, disappointment and even despair.

I’ll continue exploring this phenomenon in my future posts.

 

 

Time to redefine the word “nerd”

One day, my daughter, who’s eight-year old, asked me, “Mama, am I a nerd?”

“No, you’re not,” I replied. “Why did you ask?” She does competitive gymnastics, plays soccer, is the fastest runner in her class, and has many friends.

She explained that one of her classmates had called her a nerd because she likes reading.

Indeed, my daughter is a voracious reader, often reading books as thick as a brick. She has her own collection and she checks out more than a dozen books from our local library every week. When she’s absorbed in reading, she forgets about her surroundings. Sometimes I become impatient with her because I have to call her many times for dinner before she answers.

When did loving reading make you a “nerd”? I can talk about our dwindling reading culture, our increasingly shortened attention span, our addiction to entertainment and social media, and even Trump’s anti-intellectual tendency. But rather, I want to redefine what being a nerd means.

According to the Merriam-Webster, a nerd is “an unstylish, unattractive, or socially inept person, especially one slavishly devoted to intellectual or academic pursuits.” Clearly this definition is outdated, considering how much we depend on technology and all the things it brings along. In Silicon Valley where I live, nerds are everywhere and they are well respected. “Nerd” is the synonym of “devotion,” “innovation,” “industriousness,” and “ingenuity.”

Apple, Tesla, Google, Facebook…they’re all products created by nerds. I was reading a recent Vogue article about fashion designer Rei Kawakubo. She seems a nerd to me.

I like some of the Urban Dictionary’s definitions of “nerd.” Here are a few

  • One whose IQ exceeds his weight
  • People who’re smarter than you.
  • The person you will one day call “Boss”

I’m adding my definition: nerds are the ones who dictate and control, the ones who decide on our fate as a society.

That day, my daughter and I talked about what being a nerd means. Different definitions, different perspectives. She said, after a bit thinking, “Well, I think it’s cool to be a nerd. Isn’t the best thing in the world being passionate about what you love?”

I agreed.

(Featured image: My 5-year-old was mesmerized by a design at The Tech in San Jose, California.)

 

 

 

 

Meet my Mongolian translator, Aanjii

Since its first publication in Australia, my first novel, February Flowers, has been translated into nine languages (I did the Chinese translation myself). Two months ago, I received an email from a Mongolian girl named Altan erdene Sodnomragchaa and she said she was translating the book into Mongolian. She is currently studying Chinese in Taiwan.

Thus my correspondence with Aanjii began. I asked her about the naming culture in Mongolia, and she told me that Mongolians only call strangers by their full names, and they reserve special names for their family and friends. For her, she’s Altka for her family, Aanjii for her friends, Altan for her teachers,  啊薾妲 for her Taiwanese friends, and she has an English name too, Alice. Her Mongolian name means Golden Treasure.

In her letters to me, Aanjii talked about her loving family, her innocent, carefree childhood, where she was allowed to be just a child, and her study in Taiwan. Her family lives in Ulaanbaatar, a modern city where locals have access to movies and books from all over the world.

Ulaanbaatar

She told me that she resonated with Cheng Min, the younger one of the two main heroines in February Flowers, which made her want to introduce the book to the young people in her homeland.

I’ve had only a glimpse of the Mongolian culture through reading and other resources, including watching a BBC program about eagle hunting and training in the Western Altai Mountains in Mongolia. Mongolians seem such people with strength, warmth and a strong spirit.

Unlike February Flowers‘ other translators who have been commissioned by local publishers for their work, Aanjii is going to translate the book first, and then find a publisher in Mongolia. I admire her courage and hope that she’ll get a grant to help her.

Aanjii’s translating “February Flowers” into Mongolian

Aanjii wrote again last week and said that she would love to invite me to Mongolia for a book tour when the Mongolian version of February Flowers is released.

Aanjii, thank you for your hard work, and I so much look forward to seeing you in Mongolia someday. 😀

 

 

 

 

Nostalgia — bittersweet, like your favorite dark chocolates

The SF bay area, where I live, throngs with immigrants and transplants. Once I had dinner with friends, and we realized, with a bit amusement, that the twelve of us were from eleven countries.

So here comes nostalgia for me and many of my friends.

Nostalgia is a blend of memory and imagination. Nostalgia cannot be measured by logic. If it has a taste, it’s bittersweet, like your favorite dark chocolates.

An evening. A little before midnight. You taking a walk, alone, in your hometown which you haven’t visited for many years.

You walk in a mist that has made the city cold and foggy. A bus passes carrying only a few passengers, its wheels splashing through puddles. The air is unusually fresh—a treat, one may say. The thick daytime smoke from the giant chimneys of the chemical factories is temporarily dormant, so are the loud motorcycles and scooters that infest the city like locusts. Without the distraction of noises and crowds you begin to appreciate the low-slung, mustard-brick houses covered by overgrown ivy, wedged between newer condos, the pebble-surfaced alleys without streetlamps, and the thousand-year-old Clouds Pavilion that had been burned down and been rebuilt twenty or more times over the years.

A young night-shift worker in blue uniform is biking towards you, one hand holding an umbrella, the other inside his jacket. When you were a teenager you would ride hands-off, letting the bike snake through narrow, bumpy streets like a drunkard; it was considered cool. After passing you the man rings his bell—a ripple of crystal sounds: maybe a belated hello or merely for fun.

Just like that, your eyes are moist.

Featured image: Zhang Ailing (Eileen Chang), one of my favorite Chinese writers. I’ll write about her in a future post.

 

Happy Mother’s Day!

I didn’t know what being a mother means until I became a mother myself. When my daughter was born prematurely and had to be in the NICU for three weeks, my mother called me from China and told me to take care of myself. “You need to be happy, healthy and strong for your newborn and your family,” she said.

Now I’m a mother of two children. Whenever I feel stressed, frustrated or exhausted, I think of my mother. How she raised five children on a remote state-run farm, where she, as a biologist, had to endure family tragedy, physical labor as well as political persecution. How she made clothes and shoes for my brothers and me after a long day of work, and how she brightened our shabby apartment with beautiful songs on her four-string lute (月琴), which she had played since a young age.

Later my mother returned to the city to be a librarian. In the evenings, when my brothers and I were doing homework, she would teach herself English. “If you keep learning, you will never grow old,” she once said to me. After retirement, she took up Chinese water-and-ink painting (水墨画) and, with passion and devotion, transformed herself into an artist. She still paints several hours every day.

My mother has taught me about industriousness, integrity, perseverance, and most importantly, love. The love of who you are. The love of learning. The love of life. Thank you, Mama.

Happy Mother’s Day!

 

Featured image: “Mom and Me,” Maya Cedergren, 8

Chai Jing (柴静) and her “Seeing” (看见)– China’s Conscience

Several years ago I visited China with my agent Toby Eady, and I had a chance to meet one of the most respected Chinese journalists, Chai Jing. After the meeting, I read her book “Seeing” (看见), a collection of investigative journalism reports and was deeply impressed. Several months later, she wowed me again with her self-financed documentary, “Under the Dome,” which tackles China’s severe environmental problems.

Chai Jing’s Kai Jian (Seeing) has sold well more than one million copies in China since its publication in 2012. It’s a charming blend of personal anecdotes, journalistic reports, social and cultural commentaries, and light philosophical meditation.

Until recent years, Chai had been a celebrity anchor at the Chinese Central Television (CCTV), the predominant state broadcaster in China which Chai first joined in 2001, and had hosted popular news-heavy programs such as “Horizon Connection,” “Journalistic Investigation,” “24 Hours,” and “One on One.” She was famous for her dedication to her subject matters, sharp and outspoken interview techniques, and also her unadorned beauty and gentle smiles. In a way, you can say she was China’s Barbara Walters.

“Seeing” is about people, the author declares in the preface. She says, “I didn’t choose purposely landmark events, nor did I have the ambition to depict the history. From the myriad of the journalistic work I have done, I only chose those about the people who had profoundly impressed me with their vitality.”

You meet these people chapter after chapter, each of the 12 chapters a standalone story. During the 2003 SARS outburst, desperate SARS patients were squeezed into the make-shift treatment areas, cared by unprepared but devoted medical staff, some of whom would later die from this pandemic while performing their duties.

In the story entitled “Shuang Cheng City’s Wounds,” five elementary school students from the same class attempted to committed suicide by taking poison within a week, and one died. Chai’s investigation takes her to meet the survivors and their families and friends to find out what is behind the tragedies.

You meet Yao Jiaxin, a talented college student who stabbed a peasant woman to death after a traffic accident. Also a taciturn German young man who lives in a poor village in Guangxi Province for years to be with liu shou er tong, children left behind by their parents because they have to work in the city to earning the living.

In the book, Chai intertwines her own stories with her news reporting. Through her interviews and investigation, through her traveling all over the country, you see how she has progressed from a promising yet naive college graduate to someone deeply humbled by what she’s heard and seen, someone asking provocative and penetrating questions without fear.

While chronicling her growth, Chai touches many corners of the Chinese lives in the past decade. In this sense, the book is also a journal of what China has gone through in this period, its historical baggage, its economic boom and social changes, and the huge price it often has to pay.

Featured image: me at a 荣宝斋 bookstore in Beijing

You’re not a fish, how do you know a fish’s happiness?

Two weeks ago, my kids had their spring break and our family went to Cancun together as the kids love the beach and snorkeling. We visited Chichen Itza, swam in a cenote, toured Isla Mujeres in a golf cart, drove a speedboat and snorkeled, and the kids swam with dolphins. We had a great time. Though we skipped the Sea World when we were in San Diego last summer as a protest against their whale shows, this time, my husband and I let the kids swim with the dolphins at Dolphin Discovery because they “really, really wanted to.”

The ticket girl tried to persuade me to participate in the program too, but I told her that on principle I don’t like intelligent animals such as dolphins being kept in captivity and used for entertainment. She assured me that the program was very educational and meant to teach people about dolphins. Then she smiled and said, “These dolphins are born in the facility and they’re very happy here.”

I refrained from the urge of asking her, “You’re not one of the dolphins, how did you know that they’re happy?” A question inspired by the famous debate between Zhuangzi and Huizi that took place more than two thousand years ago. My kids were jumping up and down, excited, and my husband was busy paying for the vouchers of our lunch buffet at the facility. I didn’t want to appear to be unkind.

And there was always a tiny tiny possibility that she would ask back, “You’re not one of the dolphins either, how do you know that they’re not happy?”

Rhetoric aside and dolphins aside, the debate between Zhuangzi and Huizi contains one big philosophical wisdom on life. Whenever I feel the temptation to judge someone harshly, I make myself remember the debate about a fish’s happiness. When Trump won the elections, I was shocked and baffled. So I read and listened to a lot of stories and arguments of his supporters. I’m still baffled but I feel I have a better understanding of the matter.

After all life is not about confrontation, but about conversations.

As for the dolphins at Dolphin Discovery in Cancun, maybe they’re happy there. But I’m pretty sure that they would be much happier in the open ocean, being with their own kind, blowing bubble rings and riding waves.


The debate between Zhuangzi and Huizi

莊子與惠子遊於濠梁之上。莊子曰:「儵魚出遊從容,是魚樂也。」惠子曰:「子非魚,安知魚之樂?」莊子曰:「子非我,安知我不知魚之樂?」惠子曰:「我非子,固不知子矣;子固非魚也,子之不知魚之樂全矣。」莊子曰:「請循其本。子曰『汝安知魚樂』云者,既已知吾知之而問我,我知之濠上也。」

     Zhuangzi and Huizi were crossing the Hao River by the dam.
Zhuangzi said, “See how free the fishes leap and dart: that is their happiness.”
Huizi replied, “Since you are not a fish, how do you know what makes fishes happy?”
Zhuangzi said, “Since you are not I, how can you possibly know that I do not know what makes fishes happy?”
Huizi argued, “If I, not being you, cannot know what you know, it follows that you, not being a fish, cannot know what they know. The argument is complete!”
Zhuangzi said, “Wait a minute! Let us get back to the original question. What you asked me was ‘How do you know what makes fishes happy?’ From the terms of your question, you evidently know I know what makes fishes happy.
“I know the joy of fishes in the river through my own joy, as I go walking along the same river.”

(Based on translation by Thomas Merton, The Way of Zhuang Tzu, New Directions Books, 1965)

Featured image: Cancun

Stendhal’s tombstone, “He lived, wrote, and loved.”

Lately, I’ve received quite a few monthly newsletters from writers, and most of them offered writing tips. While I’m happy for their accomplishments, regret that I cannot attend their book events at a cool place somewhere far from where I live, and feel disappointed with myself because I’ve been working on the same book on and off for six years and am still not done with it, I’m a bit suspicious about those writing tips. I almost feel those writers (sorry, no offense here) were obliged to offer advice so as to make their newsletters read less like an advertisement, and of course, to engage with their potential readers. (I know I’m probably digging my own grave here as I may send out such a newsletter someday myself.)

Maybe it’s because that I’ve never enrolled in an MFA program and have rarely attended any writing classes (one exception was a week-long Macondo workshop with Sandra Cisneros in San Antonio, where I later returned to lead a workshop myself), and I live in the heart of Silicon Valley where imagination runs wild when it comes to technology, I tend to question that if there’re really rules when it comes to writing, especially fiction writing.

Every writer writes differently. That’s how I think. The only rule is that there’re no rules.

If there’s really ONE rule, then it’s the one perfectly captured by the inscription on the French writer Stendhal’s tombstone, “He lived, wrote, and loved.”

And I shall add that reading is a writer’s best blessing.

Featured image: “February Flowers” in Hungarian (a cover more subdued, and in my opinion, more interesting, than its American counterpart.)